I altered the lectionary to include the calling of the disciples. On my version of Epiphany, the calling of the disciples shifts the revelation of God from a universal to a particular scope, and so the congregation goes from being passive observers to being actively responsible. Then I added Romans 9 to explore the doctrine of election. A few in the congregation expressed that they found that it was what they needed to hear. (Who’d think it–the doctrine of election!)
Luke 5:1-11; Romans 9:1-18 (or -21)
In Ephiphany we have been celebrating the new humanity that God inaugurated in Jesus, by his birth, baptism, and first great acts . It’s been this first wedding dance of God and God’s chosen, Jesus; and we’ve been quietly watching from the sidelines. But today things shift. The one chosen by God starts to choose others. He doesn’t just reveal himself to whoever happens to be around, or to humanity in general. He chooses particular individuals to participate in his mission and new life. He gathers a church. You and I are now going to be implicated in Jesus’ fate. And the first dance we have with him will be a slow one called Lent: 40 days of turning inward to be honest with ourselves, no longer with anything to hide before God. Do you remember how, the first time you danced with someone attractive that you might be interested in, it was both exhilarating and utterly terrifying? I think for me the dance was to “Stairway to Heaven,” which is both exceedingly ironic to mention from the pulpit and also a long, impossible song to dance to—dancing to that song is like a Lent that never ends.
When Jesus first asks Peter to dance, Peter says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He’s definitely feeling the terror part of that first dance. And yet Jesus doesn’t go away from Peter, nor from us. He says, ‘Don’t be afraid. I’m going to put you to work.’ And they leave everything and follow him. We don’t get any more insight into how Peter, James, John, and the rest arrived at their decision to leave everything and follow Jesus. That goes for all the other gospel passages concerning the calling of the Twelve. Typically, Jesus sees Matthew, or Peter, or James and John, and says, “Follow me.” And then we’re told, “They rose and followed him.” It’s not exactly gripping psychological drama. We wonder: What was going through their minds when they saw Jesus? Were they in the midst of a life crisis, and just at the right time, Jesus called them? That’s the kind of stuff we usually really go for—the great story of our inner transitions. Autobiographies about ‘How I became me.’ Unfortunately, the Bible could care less about all the inner drama. Perhaps for good reason.
Which brings us to election, the Bible’s obsession with God’s choice, and its lack of interest in the choices we make. I want to spend today in a careful meditation on election, which may sound like a topic only a theologian could love, but I believe thinking about election can really change the way we see ourselves on a practical level. The problem standing in the way is that election is without a doubt the most botched doctrine in the history of Christianity. Christians have said and continue to say completely idiotic things about God’s election. Being a scholar of John Calvin, I cannot avoid this. If people know anything about Calvin, it’s that he taught so-called “Double Predestination,” that is, God elects some to eternal salvation and others to eternal torment, just because God wanted to, and we simply have to accept that without understanding it. Well, that makes Lent sound like a fabulous winter getaway! Calvin himself called this teaching, “A horrible decree.” Well, Mr. Calvin, perhaps that should have prompted you to rethink it. And that’s just what modern Christians have done, and many have concluded something quite the opposite of election: God simply invites and encourages, but leaves it to our free choice whether we will respond. (We have lots of hymns about that; none that I could find is about God’s choice of us.) The typical modern view is God doesn’t elect; we elect, we choose. Later I’ll talk about why that might not be the best answer. But let’s first of all be fair to our dearly beloved John Calvin; election is not all his fault (and by the way, he has many more helpful things to say to Christians.) Calvin gets predestination from Augustine, 1100 years earlier. Augustine gets it from Paul in the Book of Romans, Paul gets the language of the potter and clay from Isaiah 45, and gets God’s election from Deuteronomy, Exodus, and all the way back to Genesis with Abraham. In other words, election, while it takes on many different appearances in Scripture, is woven throughout both testaments, and simply cannot be ignored. If we can’t recover some important truth to election, we will forever have to tip toe through the Bible as if we were walking through a cow pasture. I’d rather confidently stride right through, wouldn’t you? (Just don’t slip and fall.)
The first thing to say about election, and perhaps the most difficult and mysterious, is that in the end, everything is God’s doing. Ultimately, God is behind everything. The Bible can toss off this truth in all its disturbing resonance: Paul can say “[God] has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.” Or take Isaiah 45:7: “I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” Many religions get around to saying something like that. Muslims teach Qadar, predestined fate. While in some ways very different, the view of some Hindus who hold the view that God is all or in all things might amount to much the same thing: All things are from God, or all things are in God.
At some level I think this is true. And at some level, it is helpful. It may or may not help with the problem of why there is evil and suffering in the world. We can say that evil and suffering, “weal and woe,” are all from God and all a part of God. That doesn’t give us the answer that we probably want. It might assure us that all things are a part of God’s great plan, but at the same time we must confess that we have no idea what that plan is. Perhaps it is more useful, if we dwell for a moment in the perspective that all things come from God and are a part of God, to consider that neither our lives nor anything we touch and encounter can claim any ultimate reality for themselves. We know this. We know that we are but specs in the universe, and the whole solar system and even the universe as we know it are, in the grand scheme of things, temporary. We should not have to anxiously deny that fact. For I think it is true, and perhaps helpful from time to time to consider, that there is ultimately only one reality: God. God is above and beyond it all. Only God is absolutely real, not you or I, or the choices we make.
You don’t hear that often from Christians, probably because we’ve bought in a little too much to secularism, which can see no reality but what is in front of us. But I’m not speaking only for myself. The Bible implies it, as we saw. Martin Luther, in some of his wildest writings, distinguishes sharply between God “as preached, revealed, offered and worshipped,” and the hidden God whom we cannot understand at all. The revealed God we worship gives life to the sinner, but the hidden God, in Luther’s words, “Works life, death, and all in all.” This hidden God of Luther is but another dimension of the Absolute God that I mentioned in previous weeks. It’s true—sort of. And I think we can even catch a glimpse of this truth when, on Good Friday, we gaze upon the deepest mystery of the cross. In short, election first of all reminds us that beyond the choices we make lies a divine mystery that is unfathomable.
Election as we see it in Paul, and even in Calvin, is somewhat useful in a second way. Paul, a little beyond our already long reading from Romans, suggests God has made some people for destruction and others for mercy. That’s morally abhorrent. And so in reaction to Paul and Calvin, some have insisted, quite understandably, that God saves everyone. All are finally reconciled to God, all are objects of mercy. Well, yes. Actually, Paul himself seems to say this in Romans 5:18, which makes me think Paul is both less predictable and wiser than his opponents. For Paul, yes: Christ is the new Adam, the new humanity, and as we said at Christmas, in some sense all humanity is saved in this one; in Jesus God’s mercy extends to all humanity. But election adds an important truth alongside of this one: the particulars matter for something. If you have known people who are really godly and Christ-like, from whatever religion, and if you have known people who are really lost, from whatever religion, the “everyone is saved” perspective does not say enough. We find in life a great chasm between the lost and the godly, and there’s no denying it. It’s good to have a little election dose of realism: some truly follow the good and shine with goodness, some say yes to life and to love; and others say no to life and love and embrace death and destruction. And it doesn’t always seem to be anyone’s choice. We need to mourn this fact honestly. Election reminds us that there are sheep and there are goats.
But then there’s most of us: neither Christ-like in holiness and love, nor demonically embracing hatred and death. And that is how the disciples are pretty much portrayed in the gospels, as well as the people of Israel whom God chooses in Exodus: these are people with promise, but who are at least vaguely disappointing. (That’s pretty much me—how about you?) What would it mean to think of us neither sheep-nor-goat types as the elect, as chosen by God?
First of all, election just won’t work if we think that heaven and hell are on the line. Some of you have asked me about questions related to eternal destiny. I tend to shy away from easy answers. But one thing is certain: it is impossible to think, as Jonathan Edwards did and some still do today, that the God we know through Jesus, for no discernible reason, picks some people for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment. It’s a horrible thing to believe about God. Luther would have to be right: if that’s God, it is a God completely hidden from us, one we cannot worship.
So what would election look like if heaven and hell were not part of the equation? Let’s go back to its beginnings. Election comes from the primordial experience of Jews with God. And Jews today don’t think that God’s election of Israel as the “chosen people” means that only Jews can be “saved”—that’s not a even term that Jews readily use. Election for modern Jews means God has revealed God’s will in a particular way to the Jewish people; meaning, God has imposed on them a stricter, more detailed path to follow. The be God’s chosen means added responsibility. Of non-Jews, God expects people to just be decent; but Jews have to maintain the whole Torah, or covenant with God. For the elect, the rule found in Luke 12 applies: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
I think this is a great model for Christians to reclaim the notion of election. Like the original disciples, or the original Jews, we are chosen by Jesus, not because we are in any way worthy or outstanding. They were common fishermen, suspect tax collectors, inconsequential women. Chosen by Jesus, they came to know the bliss and joy of intimacy with God, and an unquenchable sense of purpose. But Jesus also exposed their faults, failures, and ignorance, and then called them to take up the cross. The gospels do not celebrate the disciples as great heroes; they hold them up, rather, as models of human weakness, folly, and at best, rejection by the world. And so with our election: We have been chosen for nothing so much as humiliation and suffering rejection.
But only because Jesus, in his own way, also was chosen for suffering and humiliation. The blessings and curses that Jesus chooses us to bear as borne first of all by him. Karl Barth revolutionized the idea of election when he concluded that all humanity is chosen by God in Jesus Christ. Calvin even says that we are elect “in Christ.” God doesn’t choose you or me for some distinct and unique purpose or plan. God has showed all humanity what the most godly shape of human life looks like in Jesus: one who loves all and loves truth so much as to be completely vulnerable to suffering. By living such a life and dying such a death, Jesus has shown forth God’s own glory and has been raised from the dead. And so in Jesus, God is satisfied that humanity has done its best. We can do no better than Jesus; but the more we participate in the new shape of human living that Jesus initiated, the more we belong to the humanity chosen by God.
Well, that’s a start on election, even though there’s so much more to say. Election allows us to consider that some really are lost, others—hopefully us— really are delivered into authentic life before God; and election can mean that both the lost and the found are somehow God’s doing and responsibility—but if so, that is no business of ours. Second, election can mean that God chose all of humanity to be represented by Jesus Christ, who has already accomplished all godliness on our behalf. Election—with all the glory and rejection that comes with it, belongs to Jesus first of all. And finally, if we are chosen by God it means that, like the disciples, we didn’t pick Jesus. Instead, we were pretty much minding our own business and somehow found ourselves tagging along with this Jesus character. Through no great merit of our own, we find ourselves in an intimacy with God-in-person, but that doesn’t come with a lot of obvious perks. We, like the disciples, are exposed in that intimacy with God both to divine grace and beauty, and to rigorous divine scrutiny. We have come to know and believe in human perfection, but at the same time, we feel ourselves falling far short of it (just in time for Lent). We alone, the elect, can preach the good news of God’s grace to all, but also we alone can bear the rebuke of being the only true hypocrites, those who fail to practice what Jesus preached.
That’s a lot to swallow—I have no interest in making election either too simple too appealing. But here’s why it’s worth holding on to. Whatever election means—and of course, it’s a great mystery—what is most clear is what it doesn’t mean: I did it my way; I earned my way; I’ve got no one else to thank; I’m a self-made man; you are what you make of yourself; life is just a series of choices that we make, and on and on. These are the platitudes, the bromides of our culture that we imbibe everywhere without even being aware of it, like lead [LED] in Flint water. I won’t claim that these sayings are false; we do make choices and can make bad ones. But these sayings easily become an excuse to blame the miserable for their own failures, and to credit the successful for their own trappings. What election says, in its many levels of meaning, is that, before God, we are not distinguished by our choices into the winners and losers, the successful and the failures. Either we are one humanity chosen in Jesus, or we are all alone, and all our successes and failure amount to zero in the grand scheme of things. Without God’s election you were just a bleary-eyed country bumpkin fisherman staring at an empty net. I’m glad God chose you.